Book Abstract

Reading Philosophy and Practicing Leadership: How Ethical Hermeneutics can Improve the Health and Success of Organizations

This book makes two major claims, the first of which is philosophical, and the second of which is practical. We live in a world that is dominated by individuals using the tools of reason in order to promote themselves and their agendas. That sounds obvious, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of thought, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. That way of thinking began as a way of placing the individual into a new moral order, characterized by rational and increasingly efficient systems of exchange, but it has now reached a point where the promotion of the individual is seen as a good on its own, and reason, facts, and logic are often seen not a route to truth or shared understanding, but rather as tools, even weapons, whose purpose is often to vanquish one’s enemies rather than achieve a shared understanding. Examples abound across the political spectrum, from Donald Trump’s self-promotion, denigration of his enemies, and manipulation of facts and logic, to the cult of self-empowerment.

The resources of the hermeneutic tradition, broadly defined, provide a practical means for tempering the negative consequences of these aspects of the modern world. What I call an “ethical hermeneutics” draws on the insights of philosophers linked by an interest in how humans interpret each other and thereby define ethical relationships in order to address specific concepts and practices that are often taken for granted in discussion of organizations, but that reveal new facets and applications when viewed through this lens. For example, Hans-Georg Gadamer, founder of what is called “philosophical hermeneutics,” counters instrumental reason by subsuming the individual within the dialogue of historical consciousness. This philosophical tradition, which I have treated at length in two monographs on Penn State Press, is not prominent in mainstream philosophy, but it is invoked for its practical insights in fields such as education and health care.

The second claim this book makes is that understanding both the prevalence of the conditions described above–what I call “ego-based instrumental rationality”–and the hermeneutic alternative to that way of thinking can be key to an organization’s health and success. Here I draw on two decades of work in higher education administration, where I have often applied the lessons I have learned from my study of hermeneutics in contexts as large as institutional strategic planning and as small as running an effective meeting. (I often refer to administration as “applied hermeneutics.”) The literature of organizational health and success by writers such as Patrick Lencione and Jim Collins draws on business experience and social-science research, but there is little discussion from a philosophical perspective about both the interpretive and ethical assumptions that underlie the world we inhabit and alternatives to those assumptions, as well as how that discussion can improve organizational health and success. My argument is that leaders in higher education and other fields would benefit, as I have, from a deeper understanding of what is at stake in colleagues’ explicit or implicit philosophical assumptions, and what the stakes are when those assumptions are brought to the surface and challenged for the sake of organizational health and success.

For example, Lencione argues that teams need to pay more attention to where colleagues are “coming from”: we may assume someone who misses deadlines is lazy, when in fact they might miss deadlines because they are a perfectionist. My understanding of that dynamic has been deepened by a philosophical understanding of (1) how conflict works in an increasingly ego-driven world and (2) how alternative perspectives, in this case that offered by the Jewish-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, can help us understand that putting another person in a conceptual box,  (“he’s just lazy”), which is a common action by the modern ego, is in fact an act of violence. Thus the significance of this project is to demonstrate in specific ways how the branch of philosophy broadly defined as “hermeneutics” can provide insights that will help organizations become healthier by (1) bringing to the surface the often unacknowledged moral frameworks and conceptual contexts within which people in organizations talk to each other, make decisions and act, (2) showing how those frameworks enable some kinds of organizational activity and constrain others, and (3) demonstrating how what I call an “ethical hermeneutics” can both challenge the underlying moral framework of modernity and help organizations work more effectively.

By bridging this gap between big philosophical questions and the practicalities of organizational health and success, I am also attempting to restore the interpretive fields of the humanities, which tend to be inward-directed and removed from practical application,  to their rightful place as practical guides for achieving organizational health and success. Defenders of the humanities often argue that the humanities will improve critical thinking, teamwork and creativity, but provide little concrete evidence. I believe I can show in very concrete ways how these philosophical approaches can improve organizational health and success. This will both revitalize the practical value of the hermeneutic tradition and deepen the literature of organizational health and success.

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